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Complainant Name:
Mr Jonathan Hunt

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: The Guardian

Complaint:

Mr Jonathan Hunt of Manchester complained that two articles published in The Guardian on 19 October 1998 and 21 October 1998 headlined respectively "Author of attack on paper's ethics was fined 23,000 for tax dodge" and "Conspiracy merchants" contained inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice. He also made a complaint of misrepresentation in breach of Clause 11 (Misrepresentation) of the Code on behalf of a third party.

All the complaints were rejected, for the reasons set out in detail below.

The complainant is the author of a book called 'Trial by Conspiracy' which made allegations regarding the behaviour of Guardian journalists involved in the articles published in that newspaper about the former minister Neil Hamilton and his relationship with Mohammed Fayed. The Commission examined the two complaints separately.

In the first article the complainant detailed nine areas of perceived inaccuracy. He said that the article misleadingly described his competence as a journalist by saying that he 'describes himself as a journalist' and omitted to mention that he had been shortlisted for a prize by the Northwest Royal Television Society. He said that it was inaccurate to say that he had 'presented' a local programme as he had in fact been a reporter on a programme. He considered the difference significant.

The complainant also objected to the references to his repayment of VAT on some imported cars. He said that when he was first interviewed by customs officers they had no information on whether he had under-declared the value of the cars and it was only his admission that he had that led to the repayment. As he stopped importing cars in 1990 the statement that customs officers mounted observations in 1991 was false. He denied that he had negotiated with the officers about the amount to repay and had paid the full sum, which was not 119,000 plus a fine of 23,000. The total figure repaid was 23,000 which included a small penalty. He said that the statement that 'Hunt denied to Guardian reporters that he had ever been fined' was wrong and that as the 'misdemeanour' had already been made public there would have been no reason for him to conceal it.

The complainant objected to the statement that he had 'tried his hand at PR' as it implied that he was not successful. He also said that the chronology was inaccurate as he had entered the Libyan oil exploration industry before going into public relations. He objected to the statement that 'most of his working life has been involved in the haulage business, with spells as a driller of oil in Libya and as a rally driver'. He said that his time in the road haulage industry amounted to 57% of his adult life and thought that many people would find the use of the word 'most' misleading. He said that he had not been employed as a 'driller of oil' but rather that his work in the oil industry involved flowing 'wells to discover whether oil (or gas) had indeed been struck'. He had never been employed as a rally driver: rather, it was a pastime. He complained that he had not been given the opportunity to respond to the comments made by his former business partner. It was misleading to say that he had 'never spoken to the Guardian journalists he accuses' as he had contacted the newspaper five times requesting interviews. He thought that readers would have been misled into thinking that he had made no effort to contact the journalists concerned.

The editor of the newspaper answered the complaints in the same order in which they were presented. He said that the complainant had explained in his book that his first journalistic experience had come at the age of 40, for one year, in a 'short regional news feature for Granada TV'. The same book explained that Granada had not commissioned any more of his features. In the circumstances the editor contended that the description of the complainant's journalistic career was reasonable. He challenged the complainant's contention that the use of the word 'presenter' had such a limited meaning. With regard to the references to the repayment of VAT, the editor published a correction and apology which stated that the figure which had been paid back was the lower figure of 23,000 as the complainant said. He said that the journalist had insisted that the complainant had denied ever being fined by Customs and Excise during his conversation with the complainant. The editor suggested that the description of the complainant's involvement in public relations was reasonable in light of the limited time that he was involved in it and that the dustjacket of his own book had described his own career as 'chequered'. The editor contended that the distinctions that the complainant raised between being a 'driller for oil' and his own work were minor, and that his objection to the suggestion that he was employed as a rally driver was even more minor considering that the newspaper had not made this assertion. With regard to the comments of the complainant's former business partner, the editor said that the newspaper was merely reporting the man's views of the complainant, which he was entitled to express publicly. The editor said that the complainant had first accused him and colleagues of lying four months before his request for an interview, and that in these circumstances he declined the request. In any case, it was true that the complainant had not spoken to any of the journalists as the article had said.

Decision:
Not Upheld

Adjudication:

The Commission took the view that the newspaper was entitled to investigate and report on an individual who had made very serious allegations against the integrity of the newspaper and some of its journalists. It was not the Commission's task to comment on those allegations, or on the paper's coverage of the Hamilton story which had prompted the allegations - but simply to examine whether the two articles about which complaints had been raised had been presented in accordance with the Code of Practice.

The Code requires significant inaccuracies to be corrected 'promptly and with due prominence'. There had been one acknowledged inaccuracy of significance in the article - relating to the amount of VAT and the penalty that the complainant had repaid. It was clear that this had been corrected in line with the Code as soon as the editor was aware of it. In reaching that judgement, the Commission noted the editor's comment that had the complainant approached the newspaper directly and at an earlier date he would have corrected the error sooner. Against that background, the Commission did not see any further matters to pursue under this part of the complaint, particularly when it considered that the kernel of the article related to the fact of what the complainant called his 'misdemeanour' rather than the size of the repayment.

The Code also requires that people should have a 'fair opportunity to reply to inaccuracies'. The Commission could not therefore consider under the Code the complainant's objection that he had not been allowed to comment on the views expressed by his former business partner as these were clearly matters of opinion rather than matters of editorial inaccuracy. Neither did the Commission consider that the statement that the complainant had not spoken to the journalists that he had accused was necessarily misleading in the manner which he feared.

The Commission then turned to the outstanding complaints of inaccuracy: that the complainant was a television reporter rather than a presenter; that his abilities at public relations were questioned by the phraseology employed by the newspaper; that the date of his work in the oil industry in relation to his career in public relations was inaccurate; that the description of him as a 'driller of oil' was inaccurate; that he had not been employed as a rally driver; and that the word 'most' to describe the fact that for 57% of his adult life he had been involved in road haulage was inaccurate.

In the Commission's view none of these alleged inaccuracies, which were in any case clearly of minor importance in the context of the article, could be judged of such significance as to require any action under the Code.

The Commission then considered the complaint about the second article, "Conspiracy merchants", published on 21 October 1998.

The article was a comment piece by the editor which focused upon the complainant and his relationship with the Guardian. The complainant detailed seven matters which he considered breached Clause 1. He said that the piece inaccurately portrayed him as a man with a 'shouting, screaming, vein-busting dislike' for the Guardian and that the editor was wrongly trying to suggest that his behaviour was irrational. He said that the editor exaggerated the claims that he had made against the newspaper in order to undermine them. He said that the article wrongly claimed that he had identified only one perceived anomaly in an important piece of evidence which the Guardian submitted to the Downey inquiry when he had in fact identified nine. The complainant thought that the statement that 'our attempts to find out who on earth Jonathan Hunt was and what he was up to becomes part of the sinister plot to silence him' was misleading as it was not clear from this that no journalist from the Guardian had interviewed him. He denied that he was 'in league' with Living Marxism as it had only published one article about the affair. He also thought that the article was distorted by omitting to mention that representatives of the newspaper had threatened to sue him.

The editor said that his piece should be seen in the context of the campaign which the complainant had waged against the Guardian which led the editor to conclude that the complainant was trying to provoke the newspaper into litigation. The piece was intended to be a robust explanation of the newspaper's position in case readers had become aware of the complainant's allegations against it. The editor contended that the contents of the complainant's book justified his own summary of the allegations that the complainant had made and he said that Living Marxism had printed several critical articles about the newspaper's coverage of 'sleaze'.

The Commission considered that this article clearly distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact in accordance with Clause 1(iv) of the Code of Practice. Not only was the article clearly presented as the editor's personal view, which he was entitled to record, but readers of the newspaper would have been aware that it was likely as such to be a robust and partial account of the whole matter. In these circumstances, although the complainant may have disagreed with the manner in which his views had been condensed, the Commission found no breach of the Code in the presentation of them in the article. Similarly the Commission could not criticise the newspaper for publishing the editor's view of the complainant, even if the complainant considered it to be exaggerated. There was therefore no case to pursue under the Code.

Finally, the complainant also complained on behalf of the mother of the co-author of his book, Malcolm Keith-Hill, that a journalist from the Guardian obtained from her Mr Keith-Hill's address in Brazil by using subterfuge in breach of Clause 11 of the Code. Even though the alleged incident took place in March 1998 and did not appear to have any bearing on the articles about which complaints were made, the Commission still examined the evidence and concluded that there was no matter to pursue. It was obvious from the correspondence of Mrs Keith-Hill that she had been aware that she was speaking to a journalist who had made clear that he wished to find out the address of her son and wanted to write an article about him. Furthermore, the Commission noted that the allegation against the reporter was that he had 'seemed' to Mrs Keith-Hill to be a friend of her son's, not that he had claimed inaccurately to be so.

On none of these matters did the Commission find any breach of the Code, and all the complaints were therefore rejected.

Report:
45



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